Where Does Innovation Begin?

Date Posted

“Innovation Insight” is a blog series written by SRC’s President Emeritus Dr. Laurier Schramm, which aims to shed light on the importance of innovation in driving economic, societal and environmental growth.

outline of head with arrows shooting out

The path to any particular innovation can start almost anywhere. Occasionally someone sees or makes a new discovery and then thinks of a way to develop an innovation. For example, Velcro® was invented based on the discovery of how natural burrs stick to things.

Occasionally a scientist or engineer thinks of a way to develop an innovation from the unexpected result of a failed R&D project. For example, 3M Post-It Notes® were invented based on the results of a failed research project. Although glamorous, these kinds of examples are rare.

Most innovations actually come from market-pull: someone develops a practical solution to a specific industry problem or opportunity and they, or someone else, commercializes it. For example, concrete was developed in response to a need for a strong and durable construction material.

An argument could be made that innovation begins when someone identifies a problem or opportunity and has an idea for how to address it in a way that is practical and commercializable. The technological origins, however, may well trace further back to some kind of advance(s) in knowledge, understanding, or wisdom that provided the key enabler(s) for the specific innovation.

In “Project Hindsight,” this tracing-back to the original key advances in knowledge was actually carried out. The US government traced the technology-advance origins behind military systems innovations developed between 1945 and 1962. They found that only 0.3% came from basic scientific research, whereas 99.7% came from applied research and development engineering. Of the applied work only about 10% came from universities, whereas about 90% came from government RTOs and/or industry. Not surprisingly then, only about 5% of the innovations came from solutions developed without any particular need or opportunity in mind (“technology push”) and about 95% came from targeted work with a specific market opportunity or need in mind (“market pull”).

This is not an argument against basic science, which is needed in order to advance scientific knowledge and understanding, but rather a demonstration of the necessity to also have organizations with the capacity to conduct mission-oriented, applied research, development and commercialization.

Welcome to the world of the research and technology organizations (RTOs).

Have you seen innovation happen? Where did the new ideas or knowledge come from?

Further reading: Project Hindsight,” Science, Sherwin, C.W. and Isenson, R.S., (23 June) pp. 1571-1577, 1967.